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The Argument for Television

June 12, 2009

Today is, actually, a fairly monumental day in the history of television. I’m glad we’re sharing it together. Want to hold hands? Okay, we don’t have to. 

June 12 marks two very important changes in the cultural landscape.

1.) After nearly 60 years of analog television technology, television sets around the country will be forced to receive transmission from digital signals, rather than over-the-air, analog signals.

2.) Old people will begin freaking the hell out, thinking the communists have won.

If you think about it, it’s a pretty interesting day for technology. On Septemer 7, 1927, inventor Philo T. Farnsworth broadcast the first over-the-air image on a television, which was — quite intuitively, I think — a dollar sign.

Cut to 82 years and several hundred channels later. The question could be begged: are we better with television? The practical answer would be yes — the broadcast of news over the air has brought countless images from around the world into our living room. Walter Cronkite delivered the news of JFK’s assassination to our parents and grandparents. We saw a man walking on the moon. People around the world, who at the time may have never left their own hometowns, were transported to Vietnam, the Olympics, and Ralph Cramden’s dingy New York apartment. A world otherwise locked to so many was finally open.

In 2009, we’re still taken to exotic locales. The homes of the Real Housewives, for instance. The X Games. The Big Brother House. The reception of world news has now largely transferred to the wireless and fiberoptic cables of the internet. The major networks have seen a steady drop in viewership of their evening news broadcasts. So are we, as a society and culture, now only really using television for entertainment? Has television just become a toy?

Don’t get me wrong; I love television. Love it. I love knowing that any time of the day, my cable box can instantly deliver pretty much anything I want, from a documentary on the bi-planes of World War I to the strongman competitions of the Scottish Highlands. But do sometimes I wonder just how much actual information I’m receiving from television as an adult.

When I was young, television was a gateway to the world. While I may not have been receiving valuable skills (outside of Sesame Street and 3-2-1 Contact), I was learning about the world. Interpersonal relationships from Three’s Company. Dealing with adversity from Gilligan’s Island. Teamwork from the Superfriends. There are those who decry the dangers of television; that it promotes laziness, that it “unplugs the brain.” But as a child, television existed as a crash-course in how the world worked. Everything you watched, good or bad, dealt with an interchange between people or characters that mimicked the world outside my house. Is it bad to be a product of television? Perhaps, if that’s solely your background for the world. But I rarely go through a day without drawing some comparison between something I see or experience with something I’ve seen or experienced on the small (or big) screen. And I’m willing to bet that many of you are the same way. That guy in the colorful sweater? He looks just like Cliff Huxtable. The loved comeraderie of a bar? Reminds me of Sam Malone’s place. 

From television, we could clearly see the difference between a hero and a villain. It was up to us to later learn how to distinguish the two, whose lines often blur, in real life. We learned that actions, no matter how hilarious they may seem at the time, have consequences. We learned that bosses were mean, and they expected results. We learned that friends help you out when you need it most. These general rules of life, in their basest forms, were presented to us; it was then up to our own parents and life experiences to teach us how those rules translated into a world much more real.

While television feeds us one stimulating image after another, it’s easy to write those images off as unimportant. And I don’t want to sound like there aren’t unimportant things on television. Most things there are. But television is also a method by which we can compartmentalize things in our own lives, by sympathizing with others, learning to laugh at our own idiosyncrasies and deal with the overwhelming stress of our own real lives. There’s no reason, for instance, why we should watch Little People, Big World. But by watching it, whether we know it or not, our eyes are at the very least opened to the adversity of another person, and I refuse to believe that watching them conquer their own trials doesn’t in some way plant a grain of hope and empathy in the viewer. It’s no-brain television, but that doesn’t mean you’re not learning something from it. You may just not know precisely what you’re learning. CSI is popcorn viewing, to be sure, oversensationalized and fluffy — but it does create mysteries to be solved by thinking, in the same way Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes used logic to demystify his own puzzles.

TV’s not all bad. It’s just evolved. It’s grown in ways both intelligent and mind-numbing. And right now, just as Philo Farnsworth eighty years ago, we’re on the eve of the next technological evolutionary step as we watch the growth of the internet, which has also and will also grow in ways both intelligent and mind-numbing.

Truthfully, there’s nothing we could learn on television today that can’t be more quickly and efficiently discovered with a mouseclick. In many ways, during our lifetimes, we’ve seen the precise equivalent of Farnsworth’s groundbreaking advance in the new advances of the internet. The internet gives us things that television never could — while television allowed us to feel a community with others around the world, we couldn’t actually reach out and talk to them, or communicate with them. And right now, that opens all sorts of new portals, just as the advent of television did. And just like television, there’s the good and bad in the internet. But for a thinking person, it can be used. 

Rarely in our lives can we point to a specific day as one where things changed technologically. June 12, 2009 is one of them. It’s a marked, concrete step in technology. And there will be more, slowly creeping up over the next many, many years. Who knows which direction television goes next, or the internet? Or perhaps (likely) they’ll be one and the same, growing together. It’s all very exciting, when you actually think about it. 

It’s not all bad, friends. It’s just progress. As with anything, temperment is the key. But today we can celebrate TV without shame. And if you’ll excuse me, I have 13 DVR’ed episodes of Moesha to watch.

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One Comment
  1. Craig Weaver permalink
    June 12, 2009 6:23 pm

    Bravo Mr. Tomlin. As I always say…well said, well spoken.

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